Moshe's Leadership

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein





Parashat ki tisa



Moshe’s Leadership

Translated by Kaeren Fish



Following the sin of the golden calf, the Torah records a dialogue between God and Moshe, in which Moshe presents his requests:


And now, if I have found favor in Your eyes, show me, I pray You, Your ways, that I may know You, in order that I may find favor in Your eyes… And he said, Show me, I pray You, Your glory. (Shemot 33:13-18)


The Rambam explains Moshe’s intention in asking to “be shown God’s glory”:


He sought to grasp the truth of God’s existence … and therefore he said: “Show me, I pray You, Your glory.” (Eight Chapters, chapter 7)


What is the meaning of this request at this point in the narrative? Why did Moshe make this request specifically now, after the sin of the golden calf and the catastrophic fall of Am Yisrael? Would it not have been more appropriate at the end of parashat Mishpatim, prior to the sin?


The answer to this question would seem to lie in the Rambam’s introduction to his explanation:


When Moshe knew that there was no barrier that was left intact, and that he had achieved perfection in every one of his personality traits and every one of his intellectual faculties, he sought to grasp the truth of His existence.


In other words, Moshe made his special request only after he had achieved every aspect of emotional and intellectual perfection.


To understand what this means, let us review Moshe’s past. The Torah provides no extensive description of Moshe’s childhood. We know that as a youth he killed an Egyptian who was striking one of Moshe’s Israelite brethren, and that upon discovering that his deed had been noticed he fled to Midian, where he remained as a shepherd, tending the flocks of his father-in-law, Yitro. From this point onwards the Torah skips a certain period in his life, until the episode of the burning bush, which took place when Moshe was eighty years old. This tells us that he had spent some sixty years tending Yitro’s flocks in the wilderness; it seems reasonable to assume that he chose to meditate in isolation and to delve into philosophy and metaphysics. Far removed from the Israelite nation, and from humankind in general, he drifted among the upper worlds in a quest for profound knowledge. Chazal teach that there was no type of idolatry in the world in which Yitro had not had some experience (Rashi, Shemot 18:11). His home was a place of seeking truth, and it seems that Moshe integrated well into this environment.


It is therefore no wonder that the miraculous burning bush, which was not consumed, aroused Moshe’s curiosity. It seems that this sight led him to hope that in the bush he would find an opening to the upper worlds. Instead, he received a rude shock when God presented Himself as “the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak, the God of Yaakov” (3:6), addressing him in the name of the same Israelite history from which Moshe had so determinedly distanced himself for so many years. God continues by describing the suffering of Am Yisrael – which Moshe had chosen to ignore – and calls upon him, in the name of history and morality, to go to Pharaoh and to act for the benefit of his people. Moshe tries to evade his mission, proposing a number of excuses: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” (3:11); “But they will not believe me!” (4:1); “I am not a man of words” (4:10); etc. However, God eventually persuades him.


The degree of Moshe’s distance from the Jewish nation is evidenced by his question, “When they say to me, ‘What is His Name?’, what shall I say to them?” (3:13). Do people who are crushed under the heavy yoke of slavery ask such questions? Is the question of whether God goes by the name Y-H-V-H or Elokim really what interests them? Later on, Moshe asks, “Why have You done evil to this people; why did you send me?” (5:22). In His response, God once again invokes the memory of Avraham (6:3). Avraham did not separate himself from the world in order to delve into philosophical inquiry; rather, he did whatever he could to care for the people of his generation, going so far as to plead with God for the lives of the wicked inhabitants of Sedom. The implication is that Moshe is egocentric and unwilling to take care of the needs of his people.


Nevertheless, we must try to judge Moshe favorably. Perhaps his behavior arose from the sense of frustration and despair that may well have accumulated during his childhood, as he witnessed the ongoing suffering of Am Yisrael and their painful torture by the Egyptians. It may be that, overwhelmed by this suffering, he chose to cut himself off and to forget all of the troubles that his nation was suffering.


In any event, from the moment that Moshe assumed the role of leader, his concern for the nation only grew. The climax of this concern finds expression at the moment where, following the sin of the golden calf, Moshe tells God that he prefers to be erased from the Torah rather than witness the annihilation of Am Yisrael. He prefers to remain with the nation in its present state, with its righteous and wicked elements, and to try to work with them and move them forward. He nullifies himself completely before the nation and is ready to sacrifice everything for them.


It is only now, having reached this lofty moral level after the nation’s sin, that Moshe is able to ask God, “Show me, I pray You, Your glory.” This request emerges from the dialogue concerning the future of Am Yisrael, since it is made possible only by Moshe’s battle on their behalf. Only now does he achieve intellectual and moral perfection, as Rambam explains.


The Gemara (Berakhot 63b) recounts that after Moshe pitched his tent outside of the camp, God told him, “Now they will say: ‘The teacher is angry and the student is angry.’ What will become of Israel? If you return your tent to its place – very well; if not – Yehoshua bin Nun, your disciple, will serve in your place.” God makes it clear to Moshe that his task is to save Am Yisrael, not to abandon them. And indeed – Moshe understood this message, and did in fact save Israel from annihilation.


(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat parashat Ki Tisa 5763 [2003].)